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Mapping melanin’s structure to fight skin cancer

14 August 2012

Researchers at the University of Strathclyde have taken a significant step towards identifying the structure of the skin’s natural defence against sun rays.

Professor David Birch
Professor David Birch

The composition of melanin - pigment from small molecules found in hair, the eye and the brain as well as skin - has been established but it is still not known how these are arranged.

However, a University of Strathclyde research group, with partners at the Czech Technical University in Prague, has found new indications of melanin being positioned in a sheet-like structure similar to that of graphite. The development could offer clues to the nature of melanoma, the most virulent form of skin cancer, which appears as a malignant tumour in the melanocyte cells in which melanin is produced in the body.

According to Cancer Research UK figures, around 12,800 cases of malignant melanoma were diagnosed in the UK in 2010, while there were nearly 200,000 new cases worldwide in 2008. More than one third of cases diagnosed in the UK are in people aged under 55. Survival rates for melanoma have increased in recent decades but it still caused an estimated 46,000 deaths worldwide in 2008.

Professor David Birch, of the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Physics, led the research. He said: “Despite the improved survival levels for patients, melanoma remains a major health problem which needs to be urgently addressed.

“Melanins are ubiquitous in the human body and function as a natural sunscreen but, while they offer protection from ultraviolet rays, they also produce free radical molecules. These are highly reactive and can kill cells, leading to cancers, and so it is essential to understand more about how melanin works.

“Although its structure isn’t known, in our research we were able to discover that it is assembled in a stacked sheet form. The detailed structure is still to be confirmed but this gives an important indication of melanin’s make-up from a hitherto unexplored direction. We will be exploring this further and hope to gain more insight into how melanoma occurs.”

The study was conducted by applying a dye to synthetic melanin as it is formed which becomes more fluorescent when its rotation is constrained between sheet structures. The technique is similar to one used in an earlier research project involving Professor Birch, for a system to detect Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages.

The melanin research forms part of a £5 million Science and Innovation Award in molecular nanometrology, made in 2006, from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Scottish Funding Council. A co-researcher on the project, Tereza Bidláková of the Czech Technical University, was supported through the ERASMUS programme. 

The research is part of the Bionanotechnology research theme at Strathclyde’s Technology and Innovation Centre, a world-leading research centre that is transforming the way universities, business and industry collaborate to find solutions to major global challenges. 

The research paper is published in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

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